While Tampa Bay and Boston continue to battle on the ice, the Atlantic Division is undergoing sweeping change. It was by far the weakest division in hockey this season – with four of the NHL's bottom five teams – but may not stay that way much longer.
The biggest impact, of course, came from the draft lottery as the Sabres earned the No. 1 pick while Montreal won the draw for No. 3, dropping Ottawa to No. 4. The season was a runaway, with the Lightning, Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs grabbing the three playoff spots and holding them for months. A fabulous 25-8-2 rush over the final 35 games by the Florida Panthers left them with 96 points, one shy of the postseason, but as a team expected to contend next season. It seems inevitable that the Sabres will start to improve quickly. You would think the same would be true for the Habs and Sens, although there are still major question marks in leadership positions. Detroit could be the team in the most immediate trouble.
The biggest off-ice news might actually be coming out of Toronto, with the departure of General Manager Lou Lamoriello and rumblings of discord between coach Mike Babcock and star player Auston Matthews. Still, it's worth noting the Leafs finished 43 points ahead of the Sabres for the final spot in the division and Florida was 34 ahead – and missed the playoffs.
Here's a post-lottery look at key storylines brewing in the Sabres' division:
Buffalo: The Dahlin lottery victory is obviously a game-changer but the Sabres remain a long way away from pulling a New Jersey- or Colorado-style turnaround from last in the conference into a playoff spot. Major holes abound on left wing, among the bottom six forwards and in goal. Coach Phil Housley will have to show early improvement next season, especially now that he has the kind of defense quarterback he longed to have when he came here from Nashville.
And the front office dynamic clearly changed with Tuesday's sudden resignation of Russ Brandon and the ascension of Kim Pegula to team president. Pegula ostensibly becomes the point person for the badly needed renovation of KeyBank Center and would likely contribute to more heat on Housley if things start poorly than Brandon, who simply was not a hockey person. Pegula isn't either, but it's well-known she has been heavily involved in the numerous dismissals that have gone on in the organization since 2013, including the hockey department.
Toronto, Part I: Team president Brendan Shanahan opted to push Lamoriello into a senior advisor role after three seasons, simply following the deal he formulated with the former New Jersey czar in 2015. Lamoriello, 75, has initially rebuked rumors he's heading to the New York Islanders and said he'll honor the four-year advisor role he originally agreed to with the Leafs. It opens the door for 31-year-old assistant GM Kyle Dubas to slide into the top spot and deal with the looming contract issues the team will face with Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
Toronto, Part II: At locker cleanout day following the Game 7 loss in Boston, the Leafs had to defuse reports of a rift between Babcock and Matthews, who had just two points in the series and was noted in a snit on the bench during the third period of the finale. Babcock immediately sought out Matthews on breakup day and was told there was no issue. Matthews repeated that feeling to reporters.
“I think Auston is a young man trying to be the best player in the world. He wants to get better," Babcock said. "He’s like everybody else on the team, disappointed today. The hardest part in life is when you’re disappointed and you expect more of yourself. He’s a good young man, we’re lucky to have him, I’m lucky to coach him.”
One big problem noted by the Toronto Sun is ice time. Matthews ranked 71st in ice time among forwards this season at 18:08 per game – and 154th in power play ice time at just 2:09. Comparisons? Ryan O'Reilly was eighth at 20:49 and Jack Eichel was tied for 15th overall with Alex Ovechkin at 20:09. On the PP, Eichel was tied for third with Mikko Rantanen at 3:44 and O'Reilly (3:36) was tied for eighth with Nathan MacKinnon. Matthews sure seems to have a point. Babcock simply has to use his horse far more than he does.
Montreal: The Habs were happy to get into the top three of the lottery, where they had designs on pairing Dahlin with Shea Weber had they won. So the loss was disappointing, especially when GM Marc Bergevin noted to reporters in Toronto, "There's a cutoff at 1. After that there's a debate between 2 to 5." (Sabres fans approve of that quote). As for the No. 3 pick, it stands to reason that the Habs would be headed down the road of taking Halifax winger Filip Zadina.
But the Habs desperately need a No. 1 center on their roster and still don't have it. Does that put them in the John Tavares Derby or looking to see what the Sabres might want for O'Reilly?
Ottawa: The Sens didn't get Dahlin so there's no super pair with Erik Karlsson, and no decision to now cut bait with their longtime star to get a big package with the heir apparent in the house. Boston University winger Brady Tkachuk, the Team USA World Junior star, seems like the early line favorite to head to the Canadian capital at No. 4. The team announced Tuesday that coach Guy Boucher will return for the final year of his contract but lame-ducking it may not be good for the long-term status of Boucher, whose team went from a goal away from the Stanley Cup final to out of the playoffs in just 10 months. Boucher is taking over the job of running a weak power play and GM Pierre Dorion has told him to practice more and take fewer days off next season.
Dudley stunned by lottery
Barrie winger Andrei Svechnikov seems to have emerged as the consensus No. 2 pick in the draft behind Dahlin and that would ticket him for Carolina, which leapfrogged from No. 11 on the odds chart up nine spots thanks to the lottery. That was big news for new Vice President of Hockey Operations Rick Dudley, who left the Montreal front office and was announced in his new post Tuesday. The former Sabres player and coach spent Saturday night watching the lottery on television from his longtime home in Lewiston.
As Dudley saw Bergevin, Sabres GM Jason Botterill and Hurricanes president/interim GM Don Waddell on his television screen, he was struck by the sudden connection he had to all three of the lottery finalists.
"It was truly astounding to be honest," Dudley told this corner Tuesday on a 'Canes conference call. "When Jason was standing up there with Marc and Donny, I thought that's the team I coached and played for, the team in all likelihood I was going to and the other team was the one I was currently working for. I chuckled to myself. I don't know if it's a good thing, bad thing or indifferent. But I thought it was amazing truly. Especially since Carolina had jumped so far in the lottery. That was amazing luck."
Dudley said fans in Buffalo, Carolina and Montreal should be thrilled by the lottery's outcome.
"All three teams can get a dimensional player and I mean that sincerely," he said. "There are drafts where you couldn't say that. In this particular draft, at the top there are players that can change franchises. All three teams should be very happy where they ended up."
Zeis gets Team USA's call
Dallas Stars trainer David Zeis, a Buffalo native, is in Denmark serving as Team USA's trainer at the World Championships.
Zeis recently completed his 11th season with the Stars. Prior to taking that role in 2007, he spent seven seasons as the trainer for the Columbia Inferno and Pee Dee Pride of the East Coast Hockey League. He worked his 1,000th professional game in 2014.
Zeis is a former Brockport State hockey player. He worked at University Sports Medicine at the University at Buffalo from 1993-95 as a clinical therapist and research coordinator.
Former Sabres coach Dan Bylsma is one of Team USA's assistant coaches under Detroit's Jeff Blashill.